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The Western Balkans: Unfinished History

Can a British prince offer a way out of the Balkans stalemate?

April 1, 2016

Can a British prince offer a way out of the Balkans stalemate?

So now we know from the official tribunal, as if we didn’t before, that a Serb leader, Radovan Karadžić, ordered the Katyn-style massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia 21 years ago.

It was a bit like if it had been officially confirmed only in 1966 that SS leader Heinrich Himmler had had something to do with mass murders at Auschwitz in the early 1940s. But now at least an international court in the Hague has finally delivered a verdict on the Serb chieftan.

His boss, Slobodan Milosevic, had the good sense to die before he could be held accountable while the Bosnian Serb paramilitary’s top professional army officer – a general no less – Ratko Mladic is still grinding through his trial with no end in sight.

That was last week. The week of March 31, the same court decided to acquit Vojislav Šešelj, the most virulent and rabid Serb nationalist leader of the 1990s.

Although he shot no guns, he stoked up Serb hate against Croats and Bosniaks with the language of violent extremism and rose to be Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia, acting as rabble-rouser-in-chief under Milosevic.

Šešelj reserved a special hate for Kosovo, and the Albanian Kosovar people rose up against the massacres and ethnic cleansing of the Serbs.

Their uprising finally brought a reluctant West into the struggle for independence. Šešelj declared: “If we cannot grab all their (NATO) planes, we can grab those within our reach, like various Helsinki Committee and Quisling groups.”

He expressly threatened journalists covering the war, saying, “To those who we prove have participated in the service of foreign propaganda and those are the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Free Europe, Radio France International and the BBC Radio Service – if we find them in the moment of aggression they shouldn’t expect anything good.”

A few days before Šešelj, who has serious cancer, was acquitted, Karadžić listened impassively to the verdict on his role at Srebrenica and 40-year sentence that was read out. He later cheerfully got to work with his lawyers on an appeal.

Ineffective ICT?

As Julian Borger, the Guardian diplomatic editor noted, the court’s failure to label as genocide the mass murders that began in Bosnia around 1992 caused a shock.

“This judgment is a reward for Karadžić. We have no more faith in prosecutors and judges,” complained Hatidza Mehmedovic, a bereaved mother and widow from Srebrenica.

Borger’s book The Butcher’s Trail has just been published and is a vivid account of the hunt for the genocidal Serbs. But it is also an indictment of the failure of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which was set up in 1993.

The ICT brought no closure to the Western Balkans and did not produce a judicial account of the crimes committed in the 1990s mainly, though far from exclusively, by Serb politicians like Karadžić, military men like Mladic and warlords like “Arkan” (Željko Ražnatović) who ranged across Kosovo killing at will.

Many Serbs refuse to accept that their countrymen bear any responsibility for the mass killings that swept from Croatia to Bosnia and finally Kosovo in the 1990s.

In Pale, on the outskirts of Sarajevo, a Serb-controlled district, education officials recently named a student residence hall in honor of Karadžić.

Serbia also still maintains the fiction that Kosovo is a breakaway province that one day will again be ruled by Belgrade.

Serbia Vs. Kosovo

Together with Moscow, Belgrade has launched an international campaign to stop Kosovo being accepted as a member state of the United Nations or Council of Europe and even fought successfully to stop Kosovo joining UNESCO.

Given some of the most important monastic and other religious sites central to Serb Orthodox Church history lie in Kosovo, stopping the UN’s cultural heritage oversight organization having a role in Kosovo was fairly shortsighted.

But for the Serbs, scoring points over Kosovo is the only game in town. No one from the European Commission – or any EU leader – seems to have been able to make Serbia and the Serbs come to terms with the 1990s.

In despair at their deafness, the British government tried a different diplomatic approach. Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the future King and Queen of England, went on a five-nation Western Balkans tour recently.

Ostensibly, it was a trip to examine British NGO work and Prince Charles’ well-known interest in Interfaith work which has become a specialty of the Kosovo Foreign Ministry under its young minister, Petrit Selimi, who was 20 when the war ended in 1999.

Prince Charles’s appeal

In one of the most political speeches that the normally neutral and politically cautious British royal has ever made, Charles told the Serbs they had to move on from the past. He cited the death of his own godson, the grandson of Charles’ uncle, Lord Mountbatten, a World War II commander.

Mountbatten and his grandson were blown up by an IRA terrorist bomb in 1979 and Charles told the Serbs and others in the region “I have at least some understanding, through my own experience, of the heart-rending anguish that so many families in this region of whatever nationality, race or religion, have experienced through the loss of loved ones.”

For the British prince, “only reconciliation offers the assurance that our children and grandchildren will not suffer the same agonies as out generation.”

He went on to cite the 1998 Peace Agreement negotiated by Tony Blair with strong support from the United States, which finally brought to an end the 30 year Northern Ireland conflict.

That required a major act of political investment by Blair and a willingness by the IRA and Ulster Unionists to put the conflicts, killings, terrorism and hates into a file marked history.

But today there are no European leaders banging heads together in the Western Balkans to create a new settlement and no help to be had from neighbors like Greece or Italy.

Setting up a new court

The next stage is a new court set up to hear allegations of crimes against Kosovans committed in the 1999 war. It will also hear allegations of reciprocal attacks during the period immediately after.

850,000 angry, bitter Kosovans who had been driven out by the Serb army were able to return home — and some exacted revenge upon Serbs who had stolen land or houses and who had assisted in ethnic cleansing, including killing of Albanian Kosovars.

The Kosovan government, anxious to keep the United States and the EU on its side, has agreed to this court, which will operate in the Hague and plans to start work in 2017.

Kosovo’s leadership hopes that the court will bring closure. But for Belgrade, the court is the rare Serb chance to portray themselves as victims of wicked Albanians and NATO powers who were determined to turn Kosovo into an independent state free of Serb rule.

If the court lasts as long as the one set up in 1993, it will be decades before it makes its decisions. Whatever those decisions are, they will be not be accepted by one side or the other.

As the judgments on both Karadžić and Šešelj show, the court is erratic and bizarre in its findings. The Hague process, too, can no longer be said to contribute in any positive way to the future of the West Balkans, whatever its pronouncements may be on the violence of the decade before last.

In the meantime, Prince Charles’s appeal for reconciliation goes unheeded and thus the countries of the Western Balkans are kept further and further away from becoming small, poor, but peaceful and democratic European states.

These democratic European states have finally put their history into history books and learnt to live with one another as the war-destroyed nations of Europe did after 1945 similar to how Ireland has managed so far this century.


The Hague process can no longer be said to contribute positively to the future of the Balkans.

Prince Charles called upon the Balkans to close the books on the 1990s and find a way to forgive.

Yugoslavia tribunals have dragged on and on with inexplicable rulings and no end or reconciliation.